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Chapter 7: THE CHRISTIAN TREATMENT OF ENEMIES AND WRONGDOERS
A very interesting sidelight is cast on the attitude of the early Christians to war by the serious view they took of those precepts of the Master enjoining love for all, including enemies, and forbidding retaliation upon the wrongdoer, and the close and literal way in which they endeavoured to obey them.
This view and this obedience of those first followers of Jesus are the best commentary we can have upon the problematic teaching in question, and the best answer we can give to those who argue that it was not meant to be practised save in a perfect society, or that it refers only to the inner disposition of the heart and not to the outward actions, or that it concerns only the personal and private and not the social and political relationships of life. The Christian emphasis on the duty of love may be thought by some to have little bearing on the question of war, inasmuch as it is possible to argue that one can fight without bitterness and kill in battle without hatred. Whatever may be thought on that particular point, the important fact for us to notice just now is, not only that the early Christians considered themselves bound by these precepts of love and non-resistance in an extremely close and literal way, but that they did actually interpret them as ruling out the indictment of wrongdoers in the law-courts and participation in the acts of war. And when we consider that these same simpleminded Christians of the first generations did more for the moral purification of the world in which they lived than perhaps has ever been done before or since, their principles will appear to be not quite so foolish as they are often thought to be.
We proceed to quote the main utterances of the early
Christian writers on this subject. The Apostle Paul writes to the Thessalonians: "May the Lord make you to increase and abound in love towards one another and towards all.(1) . . . See (to it) that no one renders to any evil in return for evil, but always pursue what is good towards one another and towards all."(2) To the Galatians: "As then we have opportunity, let us work that which is good towards all."(3) To the Corinthians: "What (business) is it of mine to judge outsiders? . . . outsiders God will judge."(4) To the Romans:
To the Philippians: "Let your forbearance be known to all men."(6)
1. I Th iii. 12.
2. 1 Th v. 15.
3. Gal vi. 10.
4. I Cor v. 12 f. The allusions in 2 Cor vi. 6 to 'longsuffering' and 'love unfeigned' refer to Paul's attitude to outsiders in his missionary work.
5. Rom xii. 17-21, xiii. 8-10. I postpone for the present all comment on the intervening passage on the State (Rom xiii. 1-7).
6. Phil iv. 5 (to epieikes umon).
instance of the way in which Paul 'conquered evil with what is good' appears in his treatment of Onesimos, the slave who had robbed his Christian master and then run away from him: Paul, who came across him at Rome, called him 'My child, whom I have begotten in my bonds,' and gained by love so great and good an influence over him as to be able to send him back with a letter of apology and commendation to his offended master.(7)
In the Pastorals we read: "The servant of God ought not to fight, but to be mild to all, a (skilled) teacher, patient of evil (anexikakon), gently admonishing his opponents--God may possibly give them repentance (leading) to a knowledge of truth, and they may return to soberness out of the snare of the devil"(8); "Remind them . . . to be ready for every good work, to rail at no one, to be uncontentious, forhearing, displaying all gentleness towards all men."(9) In the Epistle of James: "With it (the tongue) we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men who are made in the likeness of God. Out of the same mouth issues blessing and cursing. My brothers, this ought not to be so."(10)
In the Epistle of Peter:
7. Philemon, passim.
8. 2 Tim ii. 24 ff (but see above, p. 49).
9. Tit iii. I f.
10. Jas iii. 9 f.
11. I Pet ii. 17.
12. I Pet ii. 21, 23: the words are actually addressed to slaves, who (vv. 18-20) are exhorted to submit patiently to unjust treatment from their masters, but, as the next quotation shows, the words apply to all Christians.
We do not need to quote over again the passages in the Gospels bearing upon this aspect of Christian conduct, as they have already been fully considered in our examination of the teaching of Jesus; but it is important to bear in mind the immense significance which those passages would have for the evangelists who embodied them in their Gospels and for the contemporary generation of Christians. Echoes of them are heard in other Christian writings of the time. Thus the Didache says:
13. I Pet iii. 8 f.
14. I Pet iii. 17 f.
15. Did i. 2-4.
"Every word," says the Epistle of Barnabas, "which issues from you through your mouth in faith and love, shall be a means of conversion and hope to many."(18)
An eloquent practical example of the true and typical Christian policy towards sinful and wayward paganism, is that beautiful story told by Clemens of Alexandria about the aged apostle John. The story has every appearance of being historically true, at least in substance; but, even if fictitious, it must still be 'in character,' and therefore have value as evidence for the approved Christian method of grappling with heathen immorality.
The story is briefly as follows. John, while visiting the Christians in some city -- perhaps Smyrna -- saw in the church a handsome heathen youth, and feeling attracted to him, entrusted him, in the presence of Christian witnesses, to the bishop's care. The bishop took the youth home, taught, and baptized him; and then, thinking him secure, neglected him. When thus prematurely freed from restraint, bad companions got hold of him, and by degrees corrupted and enticed him into evil ways and finally into the commission of some great crime. He then took to the mountains with them as a brigand-chief, and committed acts of bloodshed and cruelty.
Some time after, John visited
16. Did ii. 6 f: cf Barn xix. 3 ff.
17. Did iii. 2.
18. Barn xi. 8. Cf. also the allusions to meekness, forbearance, longsuffering, etc., in I Clem xiii. 1, xix. 3, xxx. 1, 3.
the same city again, and, learning on enquiry what had happened, called for a horse and guide, and at length found his way unarmed into the young captain's presence. The latter fled away in shame; but the apostle pursued him with entreaties:
The youth halted, looked downwards, cast away his weapons, trembled, and wept. When the apostle approached, the youth embraced him, and poured forth confessions and lamentations. John assured him of the Saviour's pardon, and, failing on his knees, and kissing the right hand which the youth had concealed in shame prevailed upon him to suffer himself to be led back to the church. There the apostle spent time with him in intercessory prayer, prolonged fasting, and multiplied counsels, and did not depart until he had restored him to the church, 'a trophy of visible resurrection.'(19)
Ignatius writes to the Ephesians:
19. Clem Quis Dives xlii. 1-15; Eus HE III xxiii. 6-19.
He says to the Trallians of their bishop: "His gentleness is a power: I believe even the godless respect him."(21) "I need gentleness," he tells them, "by which the Ruler of this age is brought to nought."(22) He exhorts his friend Polukarpos, the bishop of Smyrna: "Forbear all men in love, as indeed thou dost."(23) Polukarpos himself tells the Philippians that God will raise us from the dead if we "do His will and walk in His commandments . . . not rendering evil in return for evil, or reviling in return for or reviling, or fisticuff in return for fisticuff, or curse in return for curse."(24) "Pray also," he says, "for kings and authorities and rulers and for those who persecute and hate you and for the enemies of the cross, that your fruit may be manifest among all, that ye may be perfect in Him."(25)
Aristeides says of the Christians: "They appeal to those who wrong them and make them friendly to themselves; they are eager to do good to their enemies they are mild and conciliatory."(26) Diognetos is told that the Christians "love all (men), and are persecuted by all; . . . they are reviled, and they bless; they are insulted, and are respectful."(27) Hermas includes in his enumeration of Christian duties those of "withstanding no one, . . . bearing insult, being longsuffering, having no remembrance of
20. Ig E x. 1-3.
21. Ig T iii. 2.
22. Ig T iv. 2.
23. Ig P i. 2.
24. Pol ii. 2: on the duty of love, cf iii. 3, iv. 2, (xii. 1).
25. Pol xii. 3.
26. Arist 15 (111), cf 17 (Syriac, 51).
27. Diog v. 11, 15.
wrongs."(28) The author of the so-called second Epistle of Clemens reproves his readers for not being true to these principles: "For the gentiles, hearing from our mouth the words of God, are impressed by their beauty and greatness: then, learning that our works are not worthy of the things we say, they turn to railing, saying that it is some deceitful tale. For when they hear from us that God says: 'No thanks (will be due) to you, if ye love (only) those who love you; but thanks (will be due) to you, if ye love your enemies and those that hate you -- when they hear this, they are impressed by the overplus of goodness: but when they see that we do not love, not only those who hate (us), but even those who love (us), they laugh at us, and the Name is blasphemed."(29)
"We," says Justinus,
28. Herm M VIII 10. Hermas has many inculcations of gentleness, longsuffering, etc., etc.
29. 2 Clem xiii. 3 f.
30. Just 1 Ap xiv. 3.
31. Just 1 Ap xv. 9.
"We have learnt," says Athenagoras, "not only not to strike back and not to go to law with those who plunder and rob us, but with some, if they buffet us on the side of the head, to offer the other side of the head to them for a blow, and with others, if they take away our tunic, to give them also our cloak.(33) . . . What then are those teachings in which we are brought up?" He then quotes the familiar words of Mt v. 44 f, and asks what logician ever loved and blessed and prayed for his enemies, instead of plotting some evil against them: but among the Christians, he says, there are those who
32. Just 1 Ap xvi. 1-4. Similar professions are made by Justinus in Dial 96 (704), 133 fin (785), Res 8 fin (1588).
33. Athenag Legat 1 (893).
"do not rehearse speeches, but display good deeds, (viz.) not hitting back when they are struck, and not going to law when they are robbed, giving to those that ask, and loving their neighbours as themselves."(34) He speaks of the Christians later as those "to whom it is not lawful, when they are struck, not to offer themselves (for more blows), nor, when defamed, not to bless: for it is not enough to be just--and justice is to return like for like--but it is incumbent (upon us) to be good and patient of evil."(35)
Speratus, the martyr of Scilli, told the proconsul: "We have never spoken evil (of others), but when ill-treated we have given thanks -- because we pay heed to our Emperor" (i.e. Christ).(36) Theophilos wrote:
Eirenaios refers on several occasions to this teaching. One of the passages we have already had before us.(38) Elsewhere he quotes Jesus' prayer, 'Father, forgive them . . .' as an instance of obedience to his own command
34. Athenag Legat 11 (912 f), cf 12 (913, 916).
35. Athenag Legat 34 fin (968).
36. P Scill 112. A little later, when persuaded by the proconsul to give up his Christianity, Speratus replies: Mala est persuasio homicidium facere, falsum testimonium dicere (114). I am not clear to what exactly the first clause alludes.
37. Theoph iii. 14.
38. Eiren IV xxxiv. 4 (ii. 271 f), quoted on pp. 61 f, and illustrating the direct bearing, according to the Christian view, of this teaching on the subject of war.
to love and pray for enemies. He argues from the prayer that the sufferings of Jesus could not have been in appearance only, as the Docetic errorists maintained: if they were, then his precepts in the Sermon on the Mount would be misleading, and "we shall be even above the Master, while we suffer and endure things which the Master did not suffer and endure."(39) The Lord bade us, he says later,
Eirenaios in another work remarks that the Law will no longer say "'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth' to him who regards no one as his enemy, but all as his neighbours: for this reason he can never stretch out his hand for vengeance"(41) Apollonius told the Roman Senate that Christ "taught (us) to
39. Eiren III xviii. 5 f (ii. 99 f).
40. Eiren IV xiii. 3 (ii. 182). Another paraphrase of the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount in regard to returning good for evil occurs in Eiren II xxxii. 1 (i. 372).
41. Eiren Demonstr 96 (50).
allay (our) anger, . . . to increase (our) love (for others) not to turn to (the) punishment (amunan) of those who wrong (us). . . ."(42)
Clemens of Alexandria alludes several times to the teaching of Mt v. 44 f, Lk vi. 27 f,(43) and says further that the Gnostic, by which he means the thorough-going Christian, "never bears a grudge (mnesikakei), nor is vexed (chalepainei) with anyone, even though he be worthy of hatred for what he does: for he reveres the Maker, and loves the one who shares in life, pitying and praying for him because of his ignorance."(44) Those who pray that the wrongs they suffer should be visited upon the wrongdoers, Clemens considers as better than those who wish to retaliate personally by process of law; but he says that they "are not yet passionless, if they do not become entirely forgetful of wrong and pray even for their enemies according to the Lord's teaching."
After some further words about forgiveness, he goes on to say that the Gnostic "not only thinks it right that the good (man) should leave to others the judgment of those who have done him wrong, but he wishes the righteous man to ask from those judges forgiveness of sins for those who have trespassed against him; and rightly so."(45) "Above all," he says elsewhere, "Christians are not allowed to correct by violence sinful wrongdoings. For (it is) not those who abstain from evil by compulsion, but those (who abstain) by choice, (that) God crowns. For it is not possible for a man to be good steadily except by his own choice."(46)
Tertullianus adverts to the command to love enemies
42. Acts of Apollonius 37 (Gebhardt 56; Conybeare 46).
43. Clem Strom II i. 2, xviii. 88, IV xiv. 95.
44. Clem Strom VII xi. 62.
45. Clem Strom VII xiv. 84 f.
46. Clem frag in Maximus Confessor, Serm 55 (Migne PG xci. 965).
and not to retaliate, and reassures the pagans that, although the numbers of the Christians would make it easy for them to avenge the wrongs they suffer, this principle puts an actual revolt out of the question: "For what war," he asks, "should we not be fit (and) eager, even though unequal in numbers, (we) who are so willing to be slaughtered--if according to that discipline (of ours) it was not more lawful to be slain than to slay?"(47) "The Christian does not hurt even his enemy."(48)
In his treatise on patience, he quotes the words about turning the other cheek, rejoicing when cursed, leaving vengeance to God, not judging, etc., and insists on the duty of obeying them in all cases. "It is absolutely forbidden to repay evil with evil."(49) It is true that Tertullianus smirches somewhat the beauty of the Christian principle of the endurance of wrongs, by inviting the injured one to take pleasure in the disappointment which his patience causes to the wrongdoer. The spirit of retaliation is kept, and 'coals of fire' selected as the most poignant means of giving effect to it. But his failure to catch the real spirit of Christian love renders his testimony to what was the normal Christian policy all the more unimpeachable. He calls the Christian the son of peace, for whom it will be unfitting even to go to law, and who does not avenge his wrongs.(50) The Bardesanic 'Book of the Laws of the Countries' compares those who take it upon themselves to inflict vengeance, to lions and leopards.(51)
Origenes has several important allusions to this aspect
47. Tert Apol 37 (i. 463).
48. Tert Apol 46 (i. 512).
49. Tert Pat 8 (i. 1262 f), 10 (i. 1264) (absolute itaque praecipitur malum malo non rependendum).
50. Tert Cor 11 (ii. 92): filius pacis, cui nec litigare conveniet . . . nec suarurn ultor iniuriarum.
51. ANCL xxiib. 94.
of Christian teaching. I select three only for quotation. He points out that God united the warring nations of the earth under the rule of Augustus, in order that by the suppression of war the spread of the gospel might be facilitated: for "how," he asks, "would it have been possible for this peaceful teaching, which does not allow (its adherents) even to defend themselves against(52) (their) enemies, to prevail, unless at the coming of Jesus the (affairs) of the world had everywhere changed into a milder (state)?"(53)
Later he says:
Later still, in dealing with the difference between the Mosaic and Christian dispensations, he says:
52. Or possibly, 'take vengeance on' -- amunesthai.
53. Orig Cels ii. 30.
54. Orig Cels iii. 7.
These statements of Origenes are important for several reasons -- for the clear indication they give that in the middle of the third century the 'hard sayings' of the Sermon on the Mount were still adhered to as the proper policy for Christians, for the direct bearing which those sayings were felt to have on the question of war, and for the frank recognition which Origenes accords to the place of sub-Christian ethical standards in the world's development.
Cyprianus lays it down that "when an injury has been received, one has to remit and forgive it," "requital for wrongs is not to be given," "enemies are to be loved," "when an injury has been received, patience is to be kept and vengeance left to God."(56) He was horror-struck at the torture that went on in the law-courts: "there at hand is the spear and the sword and the executioner, the hook that tears, the rack that stretches, the fire that burns, more punishments for the one body of man than
55. Orig Cels vii. 26. Origenes refers in Cels ii. 10 to the incident of Peter's sword; in v. 63 he quotes the beatitudes about the meek and the peace-makers, etc., in order to demonstrate the gentleness of the Christian attitude to opponents and persecutors; in vii. 25 he proves from Lamentations that the command to turn the other cheek was not unknown to the O. T.; in viii. 35 he quotes Mt v. 44 f and gives a couple of illustrations from pagan history of kindness to enemies.
56. Cypr Test iii. 22 f, 49, 106.
(it has) limbs!" "None of us," he says, "offers resistance when he is seized, or avenges himself for your unjust violence, although our people are numerous and plentiful . . . it is not lawful for us to hate, and so we please God more when we render no requital for injury . . . we repay your hatred with kindness" and so on.(57)
In his treatise on patience, he takes occasion to quote Mt v. 43-48 in full.(58) When a plague broke out and the pagans fled, he urged the Christians not to attend to their co-religionists only, saying "that he might he made perfect, who did something more than the taxgatherer and the gentile, who, conquering evil with good and practising something like the divine clemency, loved his enemies also, who prayed for the safety of his persecutors, as the Lord advises and exhorts." Cyprianus drove this lesson home, we are told, with arguments drawn from Mt v. 44-48.(59)
Commodianus utters the brief precept: "Do no hurt."(60) The Didaskalia lays it down:
57. Cypr Demetr 17, 25.
58. Cypr Bon Pat 5.
59. Pont Vit Cypr 9.
60. Commod Instr ii. 22 (noli nocere).
61. Didask I ii. 2 f: cf I ii. I (on blessing those who curse) and V xiv. 22 (on praying for enemies).
In the Clementine Homilies Peter disclaims all wish to destroy the heretic Simon, saying that he was not sent to destroy men, but that he wished to befriend and convert him; and he touches on the Christian custom of praying for enemies in obedience to Jesus' example: and Clemens rehearses to his father the teaching of Mt v. 39-41.(63)
Lactantius refers to the Christians as "those who are ignorant of wars, who preserve concord with all, who are friends even to their enemies, who love all men as brothers, who know how to curb anger and soften with quiet moderation every madness of the mind.(64) . . . This we believe to be to our advantage, that we should love you and confer all things upon you who hate (us)."(65) Since the just man, he says, "inflicts injury on none, nor desires the property of others, nor defends his own if it is violently carried off, since he knows also (how) to bear with moderation an injury inflicted on him, because he is endowed with virtue, it is necessary that the just man should be subject to the unjust, and the wise man treated with insults by the fool," etc.(66) "God has commanded that enmities are never to be contracted by us, (but) are always to be removed, so that we may soothe those who are our enemies by reminding them of (their) relationship (to us)."(67) The just man, once again, must return only blessings for curses: "let him also take careful heed lest at any time he makes an enemy by his own fault; and if there should be anyone so impudent as to inflict an injury on a good and
62. Didask II xlvi. 2; cf II vi. I (bishop not to be angry or contentious).
63. Clem Hom vii. 10f, xi. 20 fin, xv. 5. Arnobius (iv. 36) also mentions the Christian custom of praying regularly for enemies.
64. Lact Inst V x. 10.
65. Lact Inst V xii. 4.
66. Lact Inst V xxii. 10.
67. Lact Inst VI x. 5.
just man, let him (i.e. the just man) bear it kindly and temperately, and not take upon himself his own vindication, but reserve (it) for the judgment of God."
After more to the same effect, Lactantius proceeds: "Thus it comes about that the just man is an object of contempt to all: and because it will be thought that he cannot defend himself, he will be considered slothful and inactive. But he who avenges himself on (his) enemy--he is judged to be brave (and) energetic: all reverence him, (all) respect him."(68) A little later comes the famous passage, in which he deals with the divine command about homicide, and interprets it as prohibiting both capital charges and military service: "And so in (regard to) this commandment of God no exception at all ought to be made (to the rule) that it is always wrong to kill a man, whom God has wished to be a sacrosanct creature." Of this application of the teaching we must speak later.(69)
Probably one of the first things that will strike a modern reader on surveying this remarkable body of evidence is the apparent absence of any treatment of the question of the defence of others as a special phase of the general question concerning the treatment of wrongdoers. The silence of Christian authors on this particular point is certainly remarkable. Tertullianus even takes it for granted that, if a man will not avenge his own wrongs, a fortiori he will not avenge those of others(70) -- a sentiment pointedly at variance with the
68. Lact Inst VI xviii. 10-13: cf also xi. 1 f (against injuring others generally), and xviii. 6 (about speaking the truth to one's enemy).
69. Lact Inst VI xx. 15-17. The martyr Pollio told his judge that the divine laws demanded pardon for enemies (Passio Pollionis 2, in Ruinart 435); the martyr Lucianus that they required Christians "to cultivate mildness, to be keen on peace, to embrace purity of heart, to guard patience" (Routh iv. 6).
70. Tert Cor II (ii. 92): Et vincula et carcerem et tormenta et supplicia administrabit, nec suorum ultor injuriarum?
spirit of modern Christianity, which is at times disposed to accept (as an ideal at all events, if not always as a practicable policy) absolute non-resistance in regard to one's own wrongs, but which indignantly repudiates such a line of action when the wrongs of others--particularly those weaker than oneself--are in question.
It is on the validity of this distinction that the whole case of the possibility of a Christian war is felt by many to rest. The point is so important that we may be pardoned for devoting a few lines to it, even though it carries us a little beyond the strictly historical treatment of the subject. In the first place, it needs to be borne in mind that the question is not the general one, whether or no the Christian should try to prevent others being wronged.
That question admits of only one answer. The life of a Christian is a constant and effective check upon sin; and he is therefore at all times, in a general though in a very real way, defending others. The question is, Which is the right method for him to use--the gentle moral appeal or violent physical coercion? Whatever method he may choose, that method is not of course bound to succeed in any particular case, for circumstances may at any time be too strong for him: possibility of failure, therefore, is not to be reckoned a fatal objection to a policy of defence, for it tells in some measure against all policies. And be it remembered that the restraining power of gentleness is largely diminished, if not entirely destroyed, if the user of it attempts to combine it with the use of coercion and penalty.(71)
We are therefore driven to make our choice
71. Consider how little influence for good would have remained to Jesus and the Apostles over the Gerasene maniac, the prostitute, the adulteress, the extortionate taxgatherer, the thief on the cross, Onesimos, and the young robber of Smyrna (see above, pp. 43, 69, 71 f), if they had tried to combine with the spiritual means of regeneration any form of physical coercion or penalty.
between two policies of conduct, which to all intents and purposes are mutually exclusive.(72) Now in the use of violence and injury for the defence of others, the Christian sees a policy which he is forbidden, ex hypothesi, to use in his own defence--and that for a reason as valid in the case of others' sufferings as in that of his own, viz. the absolute prohibition of injury(73) -- and which is furthermore a less effective policy than that of bringing the force of his own Christian spirit to bear on the wrongdoer, as the Salvationist, for instance, often does with the violent drunkard. If the objection be raised that few people possess this powerful Christian spirit capable of restraining others, I reply that we are discussing the conduct of those alone who, because or in so far as they are faithful Christians, do possess it.
Again, when the wrongs of innocent sufferers are brought in in order to undermine obedience to the Sermon on the Mount, a fictitious distinction always has to be made between wrongs inflicted on others in one's very presence and the possibly far more horrible wrongs that go on out of one's sight. "Pity for a horse o'erdriven" easily evaporates when once the poor animal has turned the corner. Many a man would feel it a duty to use his fists to defend a woman from being knocked about under his own eyes, but would not by any means feel called upon to use either his fists or his powers of persuasion on behalf of the poor wife being
72. It may be mentioned in passing that we are here dealing solely with the behaviour of Christians towards adult and responsible human beings. God's treatment of man, and man's treatment of his children, are, in some important respects, different problems.
73. What else can the Golden Rule mean here but that the Christian must defend his neighbour, not as his neighbour wishes, but as he himself--the Christian--wishes to be protected, viz. without violence?
beaten in her home a few streets off or on the other side of the town. Still less would he admit it as a general principle that he must not rest as long as there is any injustice going on in the world, which he might feel disposed to rectify by the use of violence if it were happening close at hand: and though he may allow himself to be swayed by this particular plea in a political crisis, it is obvious that it could never be taken and is never taken as a general guide for conduct.
Unfortunately, we have to recognize the fact that countless acts of cruelty and injustice are going on every day, all around us, near and far; and the practical demands of Christian usefulness forbid the sensitive man to allow his spirit to be crushed by the awful thought that he cannot yet put a stop to these things. The sentiment which bids a man stick at nothing in order to check outrageous wrongdoing is entitled to genuine respect, for it is closely akin to Christian love; but it is misleading when it comes into conflict with a considered Christian policy for combating sin, for, as we have seen, it operates only within the compass of a man's vision and in certain occasionally and arbitrarily selected areas beyond, and, when erected into a general principle of conduct, immediately breaks down. The rejection of this sentiment does not mean the rejection of the Christian duty "to ride abroad redressing human wrong": it means the adoption, not only of gentler, but of more effective, tactics, calling -- as the Christian persecutions show--for their full measure of danger and self-sacrifice; it means too a refusal to stultify those tactics under the impulse of a rush of feeling which so soon fails to justify itself as a guide to conduct.
The early Christians therefore were not guilty, either
of selfish cowardice or of an error of judgment, in interpreting the Master's words as ruling out the forcible defence of one another against the manifold wrongs which pagan hatred and cruelty and lust brought upon them. It was clear indeed that the Master had so interpreted his words himself. He did nothing to avenge John the Baptist or the slaughtered Galilaeans; and when he forbade the use of the sword in Gethsemane, the occasion was one on which it had been drawn in a righteous cause and for the defence of an unarmed and innocent man.
The way in which the Christians endured the injuries inflicted upon them in persecution had the effect -- so Christian authors continually tell us -- of evoking pagan admiration and sympathy, and even adding considerably to the number of converts. By the time the victory over the persecutors was won, Christian ethics had largely lost their early purity; but we see enough to be able to say that that victory was in no small measure due to the power of the Christian spirit operating against tremendous odds without the use of any sort of violent resistance. It took time of course to win the victory, and during that time countless acts of unthinkable cruelty and horror were endured: but would anyone seriously argue that that suffering would have been diminished, or better results achieved for the world at large or for the sufferers themselves, if from the first Christian men had acted on the principle that, while ready themselves to submit meekly, it was their duty to defend others if need be by force and bloodshed?
When Plinius tortured the two Bithynian deaconesses, and when Sabina was threatened at Smyrna with being sentenced to the brothel, no Christian knight came forward to prevent
the wrong by force of arms or perish in the attempt. Sabina said simply, in answer to the threat: "The holy God will see about that." There must have been innumerable instances of Christians deliberately abstaining from the defence of one another.
Such conduct, amazing as it may seem to us, does not argue callousness, still less cowardice, for cowards could never have endured torture with the constancy normally shown by the Christian martyrs. It simply means a strenuous adherence to the Master's teaching--an adherence based indeed on a simple sense of obedience to him, but issuing, as posterity can see, in the exertion of an immense positive moral power, and involving, in a situation from which conflict and suffering in some measure were inseparable, probably a less severe conflict and a smaller amount of suffering than any other course of conduct consistent with faithfulness to the Christian religion would have involved.